In 1964, Isaac Asimov Predicts What the World Will Look Like Today: Self-Driving Cars, Video Calls, Fake Meats & More

Paint­ing of Asi­mov on his throne by Rowe­na Morill, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Isaac Asi­mov’s read­ers have long found some­thing prophet­ic in his work, but where did Asi­mov him­self look when he want­ed to catch a glimpse of the future? In 1964 he found one at the New York World’s Fair, the vast exhi­bi­tion ded­i­cat­ed to “Man’s Achieve­ment on a Shrink­ing Globe in an Expand­ing Uni­verse” that his­to­ry now remem­bers as the most elab­o­rate expres­sion of the indus­tri­al and tech­no­log­i­cal opti­mism of Space Age Amer­i­ca. Despite the fan­ci­ful nature of some of the prod­ucts on dis­play, vis­i­tors first saw things there — com­put­ers, for instance — that would become essen­tial in a mat­ter of decades.

“What is to come, through the fair’s eyes at least, is won­der­ful,” Asi­mov writes in a piece on his expe­ri­ence at the fair for the New York TimesBut it all makes him won­der: “What will life be like, say, in 2014 A.D., 50 years from now? What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?” His spec­u­la­tions begin with the notion that “men will con­tin­ue to with­draw from nature in order to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment that will suit them bet­ter,” which they cer­tain­ly have, though not so much through the use of “elec­tro­lu­mi­nes­cent pan­els” that will make “ceil­ings and walls will glow soft­ly, and in a vari­ety of col­ors that will change at the touch of a push but­ton.” Still, all the oth­er screens near-con­stant­ly in use seem to pro­vide all the glow we need for the moment.

“Gad­getry will con­tin­ue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs,” Asi­mov pre­dicts, and so it has, though our kitchens have yet to evolve to the point of prepar­ing “ ‘automeals,’ heat­ing water and con­vert­ing it to cof­fee; toast­ing bread; fry­ing, poach­ing or scram­bling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on.” He hits clos­er to the mark when declar­ing that “robots will nei­ther be com­mon nor very good in 2014, but they will be in exis­tence.” He notes that IBM’s exhib­it at the World’s Fair had noth­ing about robots to show, but plen­ty about com­put­ers, “which are shown in all their amaz­ing com­plex­i­ty, notably in the task of trans­lat­ing Russ­ian into Eng­lish. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such com­put­ers, much minia­tur­ized, that will serve as the ‘brains’ of robots.”

“The appli­ances of 2014 will have no elec­tric cords,” Asi­mov writes, and in the case of our all-impor­tant mobile phones, that has turned out to be at least half-true. But we still lack the “long-lived bat­ter­ies run­ning on radioiso­topes” pro­duced by “fis­sion-pow­er plants which, by 2014, will be sup­ply­ing well over half the pow­er needs of human­i­ty.” The real decade of the 2010s turned out to be more attached to the old ways, not least by cords and cables, than Asi­mov imag­ined. Even the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca has­n’t quite mas­tered the art of design­ing high­ways so that “long bus­es move on spe­cial cen­tral lanes” along them, let alone forms of ground trav­el that “take to the air a foot or two off the ground.”

But one advance in trans­porta­tion Asi­mov describes will sound famil­iar to those of us liv­ing in the 2010s: “Much effort will be put into the design­ing of vehi­cles with ‘Robot-brains,’ vehi­cles that can be set for par­tic­u­lar des­ti­na­tions and that will then pro­ceed there with­out inter­fer­ence by the slow reflex­es of a human dri­ver.” Indeed, we hear about few report­ed­ly immi­nent tech­nolo­gies these days as much as we hear about self-dri­ving cars and their poten­tial to get us where we’re going while we do oth­er things, such as engage in com­mu­ni­ca­tions that “will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the per­son you tele­phone,” on a screen used “not only to see the peo­ple you call but also for study­ing doc­u­ments and pho­tographs and read­ing pas­sages from books.”

Con­ver­sa­tions with the moon colonies, Asi­mov need­less­ly warns us, “will be a tri­fle uncom­fort­able” because of the 2.5‑second delay. But imme­di­ate­ly there­after comes the much more real­is­tic pre­dic­tion that “as for tele­vi­sion, wall screens will have replaced the ordi­nary set.” Still, “all is not rosy” in the world of 2014, whose pop­u­la­tion will have swelled to 6,500,000,000 — or 7,298,453,033, as it hap­pened. This has many impli­ca­tions for devel­op­ment, hous­ing, and even agri­cul­ture, though the “mock-turkey” and “pseu­dosteak” eat­en today has more to do with lifestyle than neces­si­ty. (“It won’t be bad at all,” Asi­mov adds, “if you can dig up those pre­mi­um prices.”)

Final­ly, and per­haps most impor­tant­ly, “the world of A.D. 2014 will have few rou­tine jobs that can­not be done bet­ter by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will there­fore have become large­ly a race of machine ten­ders.” Asi­mov fore­sees the need for a change in edu­ca­tion to accom­mo­date that, one hint­ed at even in Gen­er­al Elec­tric’s exhib­it in 1964, which “con­sists of a school of the future in which such present real­i­ties as closed-cir­cuit TV and pro­grammed tapes aid the teach­ing process.” His envi­sioned high-school cur­ricu­lum would have stu­dents mas­ter “the fun­da­men­tals of com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy” and get them “trained to per­fec­tion in the use of the com­put­er lan­guage.”

But even with all these devel­op­ments, “mankind will suf­fer bad­ly from the dis­ease of bore­dom, a dis­ease spread­ing more wide­ly each year and grow­ing in inten­si­ty.” The “seri­ous men­tal, emo­tion­al and soci­o­log­i­cal con­se­quences” of that will make psy­chi­a­try an impor­tant med­ical spe­cial­ty, and “the lucky few who can be involved in cre­ative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.” Though Asi­mov may have been sur­prised by what we’ve come up with in the quar­ter-cen­tu­ry since his death, as well as what we haven’t come up with, he would sure­ly have under­stood the sorts of anx­i­eties that now beset us in the future-turned-present in which we live. But even giv­en all the ways in which his pre­dic­tions in 1964 have proven more or less cor­rect, he did miss one big thing: there was no World’s Fair in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Isaac Asi­mov Laments the “Cult of Igno­rance” in the Unit­ed States: A Short, Scathing Essay from 1980

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts in 2001 What the World Will Look By Decem­ber 31, 2100

Arthur C. Clarke Pre­dicts the Future in 1964 … And Kind of Nails It

Wal­ter Cronkite Imag­ines the Home of the 21st Cen­tu­ry … Back in 1967

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • lee says:

    You act as if he was wrong about the “elec­tro­lu­mi­nes­cent pan­els [such that] ceil­ings and walls will glow soft­ly, and in a vari­ety of col­ors that will change at the touch of a push but­ton.”

    It may not be the entire wall or ceil­ing, but I have near­ly an entire wall of nanoleaf lights, which remark­ably resem­ble what he describes. They may not be super­com­min, but you can get them at any Best Buy or most oth­er elec­tron­ics stores. And near­ly every­one I k ow has some sort of col­or chang­ing light – from Hue to Wyze to those cheap LED strings you get at Wal­mart.

    It’s an inter­est­ing arti­cle, and I’m just say­ing Asi­mov was even more pre­scient than is indi­cat­ed here.

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